There is a famous quote widely attributed to 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire that urges us to always look on the bright side: “Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” However, with the Biden administration on Thursday passing its one-year mark in power, there is little cause for such good cheer. The Biden White House — despite real legislative accomplishments such as passage of the COVID-19 economic relief package and the bipartisan infrastructure bill — resembles nothing so much as a political shipwreck.
A year into his term, the RealClearPolitics poll of polls finds the president’s approval rating underwater, with a 42 percent job approval, as opposed to 52 percent who disapprove of Biden’s performance. The standard political rule of thumb in Washington is that if a president’s approval rating stands above a lofty 60 percent, he can simply tell Congress what to do, so great is his popularity. On the other hand, a subterranean rating below 40 percent finds the occupant of the White House trying to squelch rumors that he is dead, so inconsequential has his administration become. Viewed in this Washington insider context, the Biden White House finds itself on life support.
What explains Biden’s dramatic fall from political grace? Beyond the specifics of politics and policy, the president has failed in a more elemental way. At his inauguration, after all the storm and tumult of the Trump years, the new president promised to restore competence, steadiness, decency and a boring, bipartisan normality to governing and to a country exhausted by four years of riding the Donald Trump roller coaster. He has signally failed to achieve this.
Instead, despite a 50-50 tie in the Senate and the slenderest of majorities in the House, Biden — long known as a moderate — tacked to the progressive left, unveiling a series of domestic initiatives as ambitious in their efforts to expand the role of the state as anything since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s. The difference, following the Democratic landslide in 1964, is that Johnson had overwhelming majorities to work with in both houses of Congress.
Perhaps the fatal flaw in Biden’s time in office so far is the disconnect between his highly ambitious (and highly ideological) domestic policy ambitions and the meager reality of his governing majority. With Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia effectively derailing the crown jewel of the Biden agenda — the mammoth Build Back Better progressive wish list bill — the White House has looked alarmingly leftist and legislatively maladroit. For a man elected to restore bipartisan competence and normality, this has been a political killer. With Build Back Better languishing in the Senate, the rest of Biden’s domestic agenda looks to be derailed for the next year, leading up to what looks to be a midterm shellacking in both houses of Congress.
Beyond these failures of policy, tone and ideology, the Biden team has besmirched its initial reputation for competence. The administration’s alarmist vaccine mandate — an odd and highly restrictive policy choice given that the omicron variant of COVID-19 seems to infect the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike — was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
The rise from seemingly nowhere of the beast of endemic inflation — the December inflation rate reached an almost 40-year high of 7 percent year on year — was badly missed and then downplayed by the White House. This has emerged in recent polling as the country’s primary concern, a problem almost entirely of Biden’s own making, which alone (if unchecked) has the power to sink his presidency.
Finally, even in international affairs — supposedly the president’s strength, given that he was long the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — the Biden administration has looked inept. While a majority of Americans were eager for the US to exit the endless war in Afghanistan, the panicky and amateurish manner in which the withdrawal was handled, as suicide bombers struck within Kabul airport itself, sickened all of America’s friends in the world, just as the debacle emboldened all of its foes.
For all the talk by the president that “America is back,” the grim reality finds Russia probing US weaknesses in Europe, with the transatlantic alliance still very much not on the same page regarding Moscow, the danger emanating from Iran or the rise of China as a peer superpower competitor. Once European allies got over the euphoria of no longer having to deal with Trump, relief quickly turned to concern as the Western ordering power of the world — mirroring the president’s increasing personal shakiness — seems unsteady, weak and flailing.
Ironically, the expected midterm drubbing in November — where the House seems certain to fall to the Republicans and with the Senate also very much in play — is probably the best political card Biden has left to play. This is because the rise of the GOP will undoubtedly tempt Trump back into the political fray. The most recent late December Reuters/Ipsos poll found Trump the favorite of a massive 54 percent of Republicans to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2024, with only Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (at 14 percent) also managing double-digit support. A rematch with America’s most polarizing figure in 2024 is Biden’s best chance for improbable salvation.
This post was originally published in Arab News.